Thursday, April 16, 2009

Paul and Raskolnikov

I'm in the middle of teaching Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky at the moment, and Raskolnikov, the protagonist, is a divided character; his consciousness is divided against himself. His very name means "schismatic." In the act of murder, he loses the conscious ability to control his own actions; he acts as if in a dreamlike state, a trance. Moreover, almost every character trait he has, he also exemplifies its opposite. He is schism-made-flesh. His best friend, Razumikhin, whose name means "reason," describes his friend:

What can I tell you? I've known Rodion [Raskolnikov] for a year and a half: sullen, gloomy, arrogant, proud; recently (and maybe much earlier) insecure and hypochondriac. Magnaminous and kind. Doesn't like voicing his feelings, and would rather do something cruel than speak his heart out in words. At times, however, he's not hypochondriac at all, but just inhumanly cold and callous, as if there really were two opposite characters in him, changing places with each other. (trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)

He is cruel and he is kind. He murders, but he is magnaminous. He calculates and he is spontaneous. He gives freely, but takes as well. He often acts without his will. This self-division reminds me of Paul:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. (Romans 7:15-20)

If there is anything that defines Raskolnikov it is that he does not understand his own actions. Crime and Punishment is a crime novel turned on its head in which the murderer tries to figure out his own motives for murder, and those motives are multifarious. He cannot quite figure out why he does what he does. This passage from Paul, moreover, reminds me of the rants throughout C&P when Raskolnikov talks to himself, wavering back and forth, meditating in a stream-of-consciousness manner on his contradictory actions, thoughts, and motives. The difference, though, is that the division is not between will and actions as with Paul, per se (although this is there), but split within divided will and divided action.


John Hobbins said...

Hi Jared,

Excellent choice of bedtime reading.

One of the insights of Crime and Punishment relates to the need the criminal has to be punished. The wrongdoer in general has a need to be punished. The only question is how. I hope I am not getting ahead of your reading here.

There are episodes in CSI Miami which seem based on a reading of Crime and Punishment. More likely, perhaps, Raskolnikov is simply true to life in many ways.

Jared said...

Dear John,

It is not quite bedtime reading. I am actually teaching this for my literature class. And no worries about spoilers. I have read it before. It is definitely a novel to reread.

I absolutely love Dostoevsky. I personally like Brothers Karamazov the best, but I agree that Crime and Punishment is also very excellent. Of course for Raskolnikov the real punishment is being physically free. He receives release when imprisoned...something which Porfiry recognizes. Imprisonment gives too much clarity, a position; Porfiry, by not taking him in, keeps him in the world of ambiguity and self-doubt. But I think this is the very point you're making in a different way.

I like to think that Columbo is somehow based upon Porfiry--the whole "one more thing" aspect. I don't know about CSI Miami. I have only seen one or two episodes of it.

At the moment, I have started reading the Idiot as well. What a brilliant writer! Definitely one of my favorite authors.

John Hobbins said...

I like Brothers Karamazov best of all as well.

One of the things I find persuasive about Dostoevsky is his limitation of redemption to fleeting moments marked by nothing more than a kiss. A kiss which says it all, yet the kiss leaves the one who receives it empty-handed and suffering more perhaps, rather than less, in the aftermath.

Jared said...

Or just instantaneous moments of recognition, such as a look, a flash in the eyes.